The Food Ethics Council invited me to a workshop as part of their project to understand the future shape of the UK’s food distribution system to 2022. It was facilitated by Wendy Schultz, and was designed to surface the significant drivers of change – and the big uncertainties. They’d managed to attract an impressive group of stakeholders – from commercial organisations, to regulators, to NGOs and academics. The outcomes – albeit work in progress – were more wide-ranging than I expected.

The major clusters of drivers identified at the end of the workshop – which will de developed into scenarios at the next stage of the project – were on the one hand about shifts in the global food market, and on the other about changing social values.

On the global food market, the emerging uncertainties seemed to be about how quickly food demand would shift from existing markets (in Europe and the US) towards increasingly affluent customers in China and India. Without getting into detail, people eat more meat as they get richer, and also start eating more red meat than white meat. The impact on how food is produced is significant.

On social values, the emerging uncertainties were around the extent to which the UK market would be driven by well-being issues, and the extent to which food safety will be critical.

It’s still work in progress, and the Food Ethics Council promises to publish documents from its futures process as they emerge. I’ll flag them on the blog as they appear on their site. In the meantime there is an initial research paper on the impact of road pricing on food distribution which can be downloaded.

Two insights for me from the day. One is the amount of food that gets wasted in the UK through the food chain, which is estimated at about 30%. One third of this is in food which isn’t accepted on inspection by the retailers or wholesalers, and one third is food which gets binned in the kitchen because of ‘best before’ dates.

The second was an historical insight; the extent to which adulterated food was regarded as normal a hundred years ago. The Co-op’s promise that its food was not adulterated was one of the main factors in its rapid growth as a retailer. And then there’s a famous 19th century song: “I’m the man who waters the workers’ beer”.

But this raises its own questions. Formally, adulteration is the quickest way these days to get a product pulled from the shelves. But on the other hand, many critics of the food system would regard many of the preservatives and colourings that are used as a form of 21st century adulteration.

Update [17/02/10]: The final scenarios, by Paul Steedman and Wendy Schultz, can now be downloaded from the Food Ethics Council’s website.